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M.M. LaFleur emerges from pandemic

Mar 8, 2023
A store front for women's apparel brand M.M. LaFleur.

Photo: Courtesy of M.M. LaFleur

M.M. LaFleur, the New York-based women's apparel brand, is marking a decade in business this year after nearly succumbing to the pandemic, founder and CEO Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur tells Axios.

Why it matters: During Women's History Month, we're featuring several women-founded retail businesses.

  • LaFleur's story tells us about the problems startups needed to solve to successfully stay in business.

Flashback: Founded in 2013, the thesis of M.M. LaFleur was to provide comfortable but fashionable office wear for women.

  • The company launched with a collection of work-wear dresses that LaFleur described as "onesies" for women.
  • Initially, customers were sent boxes of pre-selected wardrobe items based on survey responses.
  • However, the company discontinued that service in 2019, pivoting to launch a campaign for women running for office that got attention from former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
  • By February 2020, its spring line was notching the highest sales of any collection the brand had launched, LaFleur says.

What happened: In early 2020, supply chain snags with Chinese partners began to rankle the business, but LaFleur says she assumed COVID-19's impact would be similar to that of SARS.

  • M.M. LaFleur's imagined worst-case scenario was sales falling by 20%, but the second quarter proved to be disastrous for the company, with sales falling at least 50%, she says.
  • "The hardest part was trying to plan," LaFleur says, noting the unprecedented length of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the company's strategy,

What they did: In June 2020, investors put together a small round for the apparel brand without which it would not have survived, LaFleur says.

  • M.M. LaFleur immediately closed all of its stores, laid off those who worked in them, and experimented with designing apparel primarily focused on comfort.
  • After business did not rebound in 2021, the company conducted another round of layoffs in September of that year.
  • When the Omicron variant emerged, LaFleur says she questioned whether the business could continue, and she came close to shutting it down.
  • Yet another round of layoffs at the end of 2021 saved the business, she says.

Fast forward: By late 2022 — a comeback year for the brand — M.M. LaFleur was back to 89% of its 2019 revenue.

  • The brand is increasingly focused on "power casual," a blend of dressing for a hybrid work world that consists of a blazer, an underpinning and a pair of pants.

The big picture: "It came down to two things, we were willing to change everything in order to survive— everything was thrown out the window —and all ideas were possibilities," LaFleur says.

Reality check: While M.M. LaFleur sees "a light at the end of the tunnel," the company is still in turnaround mode, the founder acknowledges.

Yes, but: The company plans to open a handful of stores this year.

The bottom line: "If we have good product and we know who the customer is, we will find our footing and we have," LaFleur says.

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